In May this year, when Anya and I flew to Riga, the capital of Latvia, it was to experience a part of the world where we had never been before.
Due to the unprecedented number of people travelling this year in Europe, flights o Riga were heavily booked. After a fair bit of cross checking, Anya was able to find two return flights to Riga on the Dutch airline Transavia, but there was no choice in determining the duration of our stay: just over two weeks. In the time we had, we were limited in how much of Latvia we would be able to see, given that the country was one and a half times bigger than The Netherlands and, that we travelled slowly.
After the collapse of Russian communism in 1990, when the Baltic states gained their freedom after 45 years of Russian occupation, Riga became a popular party/drinking/sex tourism destination for groups of British men. Cheap booze, grub and women: Mecca for the lads. Over the years, their illustrious ranks were joined by other groups of ‘lads’ from various other countries. In 2023, their ranks were joined by a surge of post Covid package tourists most of them on cruise ships (‘From Riga Passenger Port it’s a 15-minute walk to Riga’s Old Town with its main tourist attractions!’).
Our walks around town revealed a really quite charming area with a surfeit of historic architecture, open squares and cobblestone streets. However the fascination one might normally experience in a city like was replaced by a stealing of glimpses, this whilst manoeuvring amongst the thronging masses. So too, the groups of men, drunk and noisy, hardly made for a conducive atmosphere.
When we left Riga, it was with a sigh of relief. I was glad to see the last of the place.
Never could I have imagined then that two weeks later I might view it with different eyes….that there were two cities which went by the same name….…..
Out there in the hinterland of Latvia there were no tourists because there was nothing to see. We travelled on local buses moving eastwards and staying in towns which were in none of the guide books because there were no attractions.
We spent our days walking around town and then out into the outlying rural areas – often over unsealed roads – to get an impression of how ordinary people lived. This is something we do in almost every country we visit (including earlier in the year during our month in Japan).
Towns and cities with a historic centre are rare in Latvia. Time and again we discovered that places marked on our map as ‘historic’ meant a single edifice such as a church or a town hall which was inevitably surrounded by modern era buildings, suburbs, shops and supermarkets.
In Latvia ‘history’ is to be experienced in a very different way. Hard to find with the eye, it is nevertheless a powerful part of the psychic landscape of the country as it no doubt is in the other Baltic nations. This was a realisation, an insight, which took time to develop. ‘History’ was not something which one experienced in a single take; it was the very anthesis of a ‘sight’ seen during a short visit. It was something grew in the course of seemingly disjointed, unrelated experiences.
A good example of was the city of Madona. It wasn’t even listed on our map as ‘historic’. There was no perceptible city centre. It was a spread out sort of place with apartment blocks, some modern and others far less so, along with modern suburbs and luxury homes. Dispersed along the main road traversing the city were ultra-modern supermarkets and shopping emporiums, certainly rivalling anything in Western Europe. There were modern cars on the roads, Volvos being especially popular. Young people wore the latest fashions and were permanently glued to their phones. It was a city the likes of which could be found in any modern nation in the world. In other words, there was no reason why a traveller would ever want to go there. There was nothing to see.
Arriving there midafternoon at the bus station, Anya and I had to find our way to an apartment which we had booked at the outskirts of town. We departed the bus station and began the walk out there and inevitably got lost and had to ask for directions. It turned out that the apartment was situated in an outlying suburb which was familiar terrain for us and which we had experienced in the eastern European nations during the 1990’s after the implosion of communism – and Belarus in 2018: grim, grey, apartment blocks built during the Soviet era when Latvia was occupied by the Russians.
The apartment, on the top story of a five story block, had been fully refurbished, but it made a strange contrast with the worn concrete stairs in the dark stair well along with Soviet era exterior of the building. Behind our apartment were more of the drab, chipped, grey concrete blocks, whilst in front, was a very different vista: newly built two story luxury houses with sloping roofs and surrounded by lawns and trees – reflecting the decades of prosperity which had arrived after the fall of communism when the ethic Latvians had jumped at the chance to leave and work in Western Europe. On some of these houses Ukrainian flags were ostentatiously displayed.
On the walk into town there was a long belt of park land dominated by high trees and areas of grass and walking trails. One day, coming from the other side of Madona, after a long walk and on our way back to our apartment, we lost our way in this area – and stumbled on a large mausoleum, consisting of long perimeter walls of black marble and in between them, a tended garden. On the marble walls were listed, in Cryllic script, the names of the 2000 Russian soldiers who had died in retaking Madona from the Nazis in 1944. At the end of this mausoleum was a large cross and small shrine; in the past no doubt, when Latvia was a vassal state of Russia, this was the scene of official ceremonies – to remind the Latvians how grateful they should be to have been ‘liberated’ by the Red Army.
Once the scene of official ceremonies it was now silent, a relic. Latvians were certainly never going to visit it – indeed, we noticed that they conspicuously avoided it. The Russian minority were taking a low profile given the number of Ukrainian flags adorning homes and shops.
The propaganda aspect to one side, the mausoleum and shrine underscored why there was so little history in Latvia in its obvious manifestations – buildings, houses, churches, and so on. It had all been obliterated during the Second World War. History, in its physical form, was gone and what was left in its wake, was politics. But politics is history in the making, unfolding before our very eyes.
Things that we had read and picked up in conversations with Latvians came to mind.
In the wake of Latvia becoming independent, the Russians had demanded and got the right to have their language taught in the schools and to ‘live their culture’. A pity they had never given the Latvians that right. Furthermore, corresponding to another Russian demand, the numerous statues all over Latvia – and the Baltic states – commemorating the victory of the Russians over the Nazis in the Second World War – were left standing.
The ‘liberation’ of the Baltic States from the Nazis was at the very best, a mixed blessing and at worst, an exchange of one lot of oppressors for another. The brutal dictator Josef Stalin (who murdered millions of his own people) encouraged Russians to settle in these countries and in this way to incorporate them into the vast Russian empire. It was a reincarnation of the days of the Tsars, when the Baltic States had been Russian colonies.
The Ukraine endured the same fate. When Vladmir Putin launched his attack on that hapless country, he was simply re-asserting the Tsarist policy of brutal cultural hegemony. And Putin was a fond admirer of Russian history, especially Ivan The Terrible and Stalin. With the outbreak of war in The Ukraine, the Baltic States knew exactly what was in play. They’d had a long experience of it and at the same time, saw the immediate threat to their own existence, never mind that they were members of NATO.
Two consequences followed from this; on the one hand, the ethnic Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians were quick to come out in support of the Ukrainians and supply them with weapons; on the other, they began dismantling all the statues erected by Russia during its brutal occupation and systematically rolling back every trace of Russian influence. The Russians living in the Baltic States, the descendants of a colonial past and often imbued with a sense of superiority, were until the war in The Ukraine, able to travel back and forth over the border into Russia. And Russians from the other side of the border were also free to travel into the Baltic States and Europe and reinforce the chauvinism of the Baltic Russian minorities.
But now the Russian border was closed and especially in Latvia, a de-Russification was underway, with the statues being removed and the Ukrainian flag becoming a common sight. It was only a matter of time before the mausoleum in Madona would be removed.
However beneath the more obvious de-Russification process underway in Latvia, there was another far more powerful force quietly at work.
I got an insight into this silent unfolding revolution one morning at the end of our Latvian journey when Anya and I got on a local bus headed to Riga…… and which led to me seeing another city entirely…… the one we had departed from with such relief….